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Aging out of foster care


It was 1982, when Valerie Johnson aged out of the Los Angeles County foster care system, when she turned age 18.  “It’s scary to be out there and you have to hustle and you don’t have the support system (of a family),” she said.

As the nation marks National Foster Care month in May, one of the primary problems facing the system is children who are “kicked to the curb” when they “age out” of the system at 18, according to Assembly Speaker Emeritus Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

“I have co-authored a bill with Assembly member Jim Beall Jr. of San Jose to support foster youth in California until they are 21 years old,” Bass said in a recent release.

The bill is called the California Fostering Connections to Success Act. It is now moving to the State Senate. Currently, foster youth are forced to ‘age out’ of the system at 18–often with no place to go, Bass said.

Johnson, a secretary with two sons, said, “A lot of foster children don’t have that option to call their mom or dad. They might get in trouble, and they might do something illegal so they can survive. You can’t just throw them out into the street and expect them to figure out what to do. You have to have a transition period, until that person can be self sufficient.”

There are many tragic stories related to children who age out of foster care, Bass said. “One young man told us of having a birthday cake at his group home–and then being asked by them where he was going to go that night. He was told they were sorry but he had to leave. States which have provided foster youth support until age 21 have produced far better outcomes, when it comes to foster youth’s education, health, employment and incarceration rates,” Bass said. “In these tough economic times, this support is critical.”

The extension of foster services to the age of 21 might come with a hefty price tag, however, according to a report commissioned by Partners for Our Children in Seattle. The agency was commissioned by California foster care advocates to specifically analyze the cost and benefits of allowing foster youth to remain in care until age 21.

“We estimate that the average per youth cost of extending foster to age 21–net cost offsets associated with public utilization when youth cannot remain in care–to be approximately $37,948 (per child),” the report said. “We expect the federal government to pay $13,282, the state of California $9,866 and the placing county $14,800 per person to extend foster Care in California to age 21.”

Where would the millions of dollars come from to extend foster care to age 21 in the state?

Some of it would come from the federal government, according to a statement from Bass’ office. “Research has shown that an investment by California in our foster youth could result in as high as $4 to $1 cost benefit ratio over time,” the statement said.  “The proposed Assembly Bill would allow California to access up to $60 million in new available federal funds from legislation signed into law in 2008,” according to the statement.

A recent study illustrates the kind of dangers that exist for foster youth who are forced to age out at 18. More than half were unemployed, almost 25 percent had been or were homeless at the time, nearly 75 percent of women had become pregnant, and more than 80 percent of young men had been arrested, Bass’ statement said.

“By giving foster youth a better chance at success, we can keep them out of jail, off the streets, out of the emergency room, and employed. Their success will not only give them a brighter future, but will benefit all of California,” she said.

Bass said she is confident the Senate will pass the foster care age extension bill.

“Foster care has been an issue of mine for over twenty years going back to my founding of Community Coalition. After crack exploded on the scene in the ’80s, I became obsessed with addressing the War on Drugs, and the impact crack had on the community of South Los Angeles,” Bass said. “One of the things that occurred was an increase in children in the foster care system. It became clear to me that the foster care system was an issue that needed to be addressed. When I went to Sacramento, using a community organizing approach, I established a statewide network of all folks that had been involved in foster care.  I organized focus groups and community meetings and hearings up and down the state.”

The work-life earnings of those youth, who spent three or more years in foster care, could be extended by $84,000 per child, according to a report from Partners for Our Children. Meanwhile, a quarter of those earnings would go to taxes. Thus, those formerly in foster care would be paying into the system of which they were once the beneficiaries.

Foster care is a particularly onerous state for the nation’s African American children. Black children were about three times as likely to be placed in foster care compared with White children in 2006, the latest time for which federal figures are available, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The GAO is known as “the investigative arm of Congress” and “the Congressional watchdog.”  In their report, the GAO noted that a total of 510,000 children in the nation were in foster care at the end of 2006. Also, African American children remained in foster care nine months longer than Whites.

And this disproportion occurs despite the fact that national studies have shown those children suffer from abuse and neglect at the same rates regardless of their race or ethnicity.

Zena Ogelsby Jr. executive director; Institute for Black Parenting in Inglewood, agrees there is a disproportionate number of African American children caught up in the foster care system in this country. And those children need services beyond the age of 18.

“To turn them out at 18 is not realistic,” Ogelsby said. “Most of them are not capable of functioning as adults, as they have come from a foster care system that may have moved them 15 or more times. Their social relationships are shredded. They’ve had minimal or weak contact with their relatives. It’s a terrible thing to expect them to function at age 18, after what they’ve gone through.”

Oglesby, 63, said even in the general population, children of his generation were much more independent.

“(Generally) kids are staying home much longer than before. People now (at age 18) are not as grown as they were in my day. I had a job at 14. I left my parent’s house at 18.”

In 1988, the Institute for Black Parenting became the first African American adoption and foster agency in Southern California.

Statewide there are some 65,000 foster children, according to Bass. “Let’s take stock of what we know happens to foster youth, when they are forced to leave without support. Less than half have a high school diploma.

“Only 27 percent are able to find employment in the current job market, and even that is usually part time and for minimum wage. Only 15 percent of youth have access to supportive transitional housing and almost one of 10 receive absolutely no financial support whatsoever,” Bass said.

California stands to receive significant federal support for the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, Bass said.

“This will help us give foster youth the education and opportunities they need to help California contribute to a national economic recovery,” Bass said. “With Bipartisan support, I’m hopeful we can move this bill to the Governor’s desk and create that opportunity. Our foster youth–and these are our kids–have been down difficult roads toward adulthood and they deserve every chance to succeed.”

Oglesby said that African American children may remain in the foster system longer because of institutional racism. He noted that most social workers are not African Americans, and they may be working from flawed assumptions about Black culture.

“The number one drug abuser or criminal (profile) is not that of an African American,” he said. “But it’s more likely that an African American (child) will be taken from his home. Places like Compton or South Central get reputations,” that may not be fully warranted, Ogelsby said. “We have social workers who are even afraid to come to Inglewood.” Some social workers may have a misguided perception that they are removing African American children from war zones, he said.

“There’s still institutional racism. People don’t know that the number one consumer of drugs is a White male between (the ages of) 18-29,” Ogelsby said. Oglesby’s non-profit agency works to dispel some of those myths about African Americans and increase the participation of Blacks parents in foster care and adoption.

“We were asked (by the state) to form an agency that would recruit and retain African American families. So, (foster children) would have the option of being placed with African American families.”

In a proclamation last month, President Barack Obama said, “children and youth in foster care deserve the same happiness and joy every child should experience through family life and a safe, loving home.”

The Institute for Black Parenting can be reached at (877) 367-8858.